Ladies, we'd like to introduce you to the "ladyball". Designed to be "soft-touch for a woman's grip, eazi-play for a woman's ability and fashion-driven for a woman's style", is this a product that will encourage women to play football? Or does it simply undermine them by endorsing stereotypes?
Marketers have a solid history of speaking down to women. Last year, a pen company told us to "act like a lady" but "think like a man", and we pretty much always face an onslaught of subtle sexism in advertising.
But now, we herald the newest height of condescension, with an alternative football for women.
The ladyball is specifically designed for the modern woman. It is softer to touch than an ordinary football, which means our dainty digits will achieve extra grip. It's lighter, so you don't have to develop the manly strength required for an ordinary football. It's also strikingly pink, sure to satisfy our aesthetic needs.
It is absolutely absurd.
It is true that encouraging women to enter into sport is a worthy goal. Sport has huge benefits in promoting health and well-being in a multitude of ways and can be a fun, social experience. It is important to address barriers to women's participation.
But here's the thing: Stereotypes are a barrier to participation. It is not helpful to claim that women will find ordinary equipment too difficult to use. It is not helpful to claim that women are more interested in the colour of the football than they are in the strength-building and camaraderie of sports.
Aside from the stereotype of women as being so inept they need significant adjustments, other barriers to women's participation are complex and start young. According to a U.K. government report released last year, girls as young as 7 years experience sport differently to boys. Most notably, at this point girls start to get self-conscious about their performance and are unhappy with their body image. At this age, boys and girls alike start to see girls as less competent at sport. The girls also begin to notice the dearth of female role models in sports.
This is a key time to keep girls interested in sport. Before age 7, girls are just as likely to participate in school sports as are boys. Once girls drop out of sports, though, they are unlikely to pick them up again.
The problems facing women's participation have much more to do with perception than raw competence. Grassroots investment in teams and programmes to improve girls' comfort within themselves is far more vital than adjusting the game and telling them they were right about their lesser abilities all along.
As well, while the lack of female role models is lamentable, it is not because excellent women in sport don't exist. Quite the opposite. Last year, the English women's football team came third in the FIFA World Cup. The nation boasts some of the best women footballers in the world.
But while women athletes are just as impressive as male athletes (sometimes more so, especially in the wake of the English male team's disappointing 2014 World Cup performance), their games are not equally broadcast, nor do they get equal recognition.
A 2014 report from the University of Birmingham showed that female athletes get 1 to 6 per cent of sports coverage in the media. Moreover, according to a BBC Sport survey, there are large disparities in prize money between women and men in a host of sports, football being among one of the least equal.
In essence, women are barely ever heralded as heroes for their sporting prowess, unlike men. In fact, their existence is barely acknowledged.
Ladyball has also ignored the existence of women in football. The company chose Ger Brennan as its brand spokesman — a male, Irish footballer. Though his credentials as a player are impressive, one must wonder whether the knowledge of what women need in sporting equipment is within his gamut of expertise. He is quoted on the Ladyball website as saying, "I have no doubt the softer texture will be welcomed by the ladies... The fact that it is pink is an added bonus sure to appeal to many more out there!"
I'm wondering if any women footballers were actually consulted about their thoughts on ball design or if maybe Ladyball had forgotten that there are, already, women who play the game using a standard football.
As an organisation, Ladyball is right to recognise that there is a problem in the under-representation of women in football. Its solution to the issue (a soft, pink ball) is misjudged marketing which endorses stereotypes that must be challenged. A real solution is far more complex, but it should build on the strengths of female athletes and build up the confidence of young girls.
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